5 Action Items To Ensure Compassion In Your Relationships

When it comes to relationships, listening to the people closest to you, expressing support for them during hardships, and showing them you care about how they feel through action, are essential components to maintaining fulfilling bonds. There is a word that encompasses this and more: compassion. Without compassion in your relationships, whether platonic or romantic, it might be challenging for your connection to thrive.

This is because compassion entails an understanding of both people in a given relationship as their own people — not as an extension of themselves. Think of compassion as a loving boundary that is maintained both for your wellbeing and the wellbeing of others in your life. When the going gets tough, having compassion is crucial. Consider this scenario: a good friend made a mistake that hurt your feelings, for example, canceling plans at the last minute that you were looking forward to. Having compassion means holding space both for how you feel, and how your friend might feel. Often, mistakes made are not intentional, but the result of mismatched needs in the moment.

Expressed as the resonance between people over the same emotion, compassion often stems from empathy. For example, when a partner is expressing hurt or embarrassment, we can recognize those emotions and thus, feel those emotions with them. But should you find it hard to empathize, you might also find it hard to maintain compassion in your relationships. Here's how to sharpen those emotional skills without sacrificing yourself. 

Consider your point of view

Before you consider the ways in which you can extend empathy to others, first, consider how you extend empathy to yourself. One place to start is with noticing how you talk to yourself in your mind throughout the day — evaluating your inner-monologue, so to speak. What does the voice in your head say? For example, are you critical and self-judging when faced with stress, or forgiving and positive? Ask yourself how you would feel if a trusted friend spoke to you how you spoke to yourself. Should you concede you would feel belittled or demeaned, chances are, you could be belittling and demeaning yourself, which is not a helpful coping mechanism. Raising your awareness of negative self-talk, and learning to combat it, is a great way to develop empathy with yourself. 

Experts say that the best way to combat self-talk is with self-compassion. "Many of us are better at having compassion for others than ourselves. Self-compassion entails taking that warm, kind, and caring approach that we often take towards others and applying it to ourselves," according to Psychology in Action

Our thoughts and emotions entail too much nuance to be categorized as simply good or bad. Practice naming your emotions, being mindful of your passing thoughts, and do not fall into the cycle of judging yourself for experiencing negativity. Being compassionate towards yourself could teach you much about how to better empathize with others. 

Develop curiosity

Another way to call in empathy in your relationships is to develop your sense of curiosity. When conflict arises, it is natural to want to be seen, heard, and understood from your perspective. But it can also be easy to reach for knee-jerk reactions, such as criticism, to express how you feel. Criticizing your partner instead of extending the same understanding you want from them could hinder how you address the conflict and how you both heal from it. Remember that curiosity is killed with criticism. Practice being curious about your loved one's feelings and perspective, rather than engaging in blaming or shaming or criticizing during a conflict. "Label what you're feeling before you respond and honor that the conversation has triggered something in you regardless of the other person's intent," founder and CEO of Curiosity Lab, Michael Tennant, tells Well + Good

What you might find, during the course of conflict, is that nobody was "right" or "wrong," but rather, had different expectations, or perceptions, or ways of communicating that had broken down. Needing to feel "right" during conflict can come with a cost; you might isolate both yourself and your loved one, instead of working toward understanding together. 

Become an active listener

During times of conflict and otherwise, taking the time to listen to your loved ones can assist in building both empathy and compassion. While listening might be thought of as a passive act, becoming an "active" listener can strengthen the bonds in your relationships, and develop your capacity for compassion. So what does being an active listener mean? "Being an active listener means making the choice not to speak, not to contribute your opinion, not to defend your perspective or belief, and not to offer solutions or suggestions," explains Dr. Aleja Parsons to the Berkeley Well-Being Institute

How does becoming an active listener create better empathy? Consider the function of communication. We communicate with each other to connect; and even on a primal level, we communicate to survive. Being heard is an essential, human need. When we feel that we are not being heard or understood, or that others believe what they have to say is more important, the experience of trying to communicate can be upsetting. But when the opposite occurs, we feel validated, safe, and cared for. When it comes to empathy and building compassion, maintaining a space where active listening occurs can both teach you more about your loved one, and make them feel appreciated. 

Accept your differences

It is also important to remember that you do not need to feel the same way as your loved one does, or even agree with what they're saying, to be empathetic towards them. This is where empathy can be supremely useful, both in our relationships, and with the broader world around us. It is simply a fact of life that not everyone is going to agree with how you feel or what you think, for reasons that are probably not personal. 

Another fact of life, however, is that it can be maddening to disagree with those closest to you. When you want nothing more than to affirm them, sometimes that's not always an option. However, you can still hold space for your loved one by considering how they feel, and recognizing what it's like to feel that way. Perhaps your friend is angry with another friend for something they forgot to do. Acknowledging this, while also acknowledging your own perspective, is empathy in action. "It means that you can understand the emotion, and from that position of understanding, you can have a fruitful discussion about it," says empathy expert Dr. Nicole Price for Well + Good. As such, having disagreements can be an opportunity to learn about your loved ones, rather than create dissonance, when both people are invested in having a respectful conversation about their differences.

Be open to learning

Having empathy and compassion for those around you, and as well as for yourself, takes practice. Empathy can also require being vulnerable about ways you communicate or interact with others that you might want to improve upon. Of course, this is no excuse to be unkind to yourself, but rather, to reflect and learn more about who you are in relationships with others. One way to create an intentional empathy practice is to journal. Exploring your emotions by writing about how you feel, or how you experience certain emotions, can expand your understanding of them, and thus expand your understanding of others when you engage with them. 

Having empathy with others is essential to leading fulfilling relationships. Empathy is critical to our survival, brings us together, helps us regulate our own emotions, and build resiliency (via Psychology Today). Without empathizing with your loved ones, contempt could be creeping into your relationships. And the reverse is also true: when your partner won't communicate, you might also feel a lack of empathy from them. Remember that relationships are a collaborative experience, and empathy entails sharing the highs and the lows of life together with your loved ones. Ensuring compassion within your relationships means cultivating joyful and purposeful experiences together, and building the strength and knowledge to help one another through hardship.